Writing Woes: My Bad Habits as a Fanfiction Writer

It’s July! That means it’s Camp NaNoWriMo for me! So far, I’ve been lucky to find the time to write so that I am, on average, hitting my word and plot goals. This month I plan to finish off the first draft to my novel, and I’m trying to do that in around 50,000 words.

The first two times that I participated in NaNoWriMo (the official one last November, and the camp version in April), I tried to employ the techniques I used as a fanfiction writer to churn out words and get my story moving. As you know, I have been writing fanfiction for 13 years, so I thought that if I had been able to write for that long, then I must have been doing something right.

I don’t think I was wrong in assuming that. But I think I was wrong in thinking that all the techniques I used to spin out story after story would apply to original fiction. Comparing how much better I’m doing in my third NaNoWriMo to the first two, I think I’ve sorted out which habits I used for fanfiction writing that aren’t translating very well to my original story.

1. Show, Don’t Tell

Yup, you read that right. This is such a common advice that is supposed to make your story better all the time, but I find that this isn’t the case for me. At least, it isn’t the case right now in my first draft.

I know why people duke out this advice all the time. I’ve read my fair share of books that just aren’t immersive. The best reading experience is when you feel, as a reader, that you’re part of the world you’re reading. To give this experience, writers must “show, not tell.”

The catch with this advice is that, IMHO, you really should not be showing all the time. This is a technique that I used as a fanfiction writer so that I could churn out those 15,000 word chapters that are so popular in fandoms. The more words you write, the more material your readers can engage in. That’s what they like. And fanfiction chapters are no big commitment to readers; they’ll gobble the stuff up at midnight, and wait (impatiently or patiently) for the next chapter.

So to beef up my chapters, I used to show everything. A character walking up the stairs? Yup, I’ll show how he took one step and the next, and I’ll probably describe what kind of internal conflict is prancing to the beat of those steps. I once read a fanfiction that described someone slipping and falling in so much detail, that it took more time for me to read the passage than for the character to fall.

While I think this is excusable in fanfiction, in the first draft of my original story, I realized that it’s holding me back. When I need to advance the plot, in the grand scheme of the story I want to tell, does it really matter what the characters are eating for breakfast and how they’re eating it and what they think about it? Do I really need to spend a page describing said breakfast? Because really, that’s what showing means. Showing is supposed to bring the readers along for the ride, and how can readers be immersed in the experience of breakfast if I don’t describe it?

The thing about writing that I’m finding out rather quickly is that not everything is important. If something is not going to make a very big impact in your book, or it’s not going to advance the plot or the characterization in some way, it’s probably best if you keep it out. Hence, it’s totally okay to just say, “Bob and Bill had breakfast, and then drove away.”

Because this is an advcie that I see everywhere, I’m still trying to get used to the idea that I can just “tell.” But for the first draft, I know that I can always plump up my scenes later after I’ve established what exactly is important or not.

2. Resort to Introspection

I love, love, love introspective fanfictions. All those times we’ve wondered what a character was actually thinking in a particular scene? Or perhaps I’m reading an AU and I want to see how their mind works in this new world? Introspection is one of my indulgent guilty-pleasures.

So naturally, when I write, I tend to resort to introspective scenes quite often. I do it primarily to fill up my word count in a show-y kind of way (as I mentioned above), but I also do it to open the characters’ minds up to the readers. My one-shots are usually full of introspection; my multi-chaptered fanfictions that have overarching plots have less introspection, but they are still noticeably there.

And here’s why I think too many introspective passages won’t work so well in original fiction: you want to leave some of those inner dialogue up to the reader. There’s a reason why I’m attracted to introspective fanfiction, and it’s because I didn’t get them in the canon material. But depending on what kind of story you’re writing, the main job of the canon material is to tell that story effectively in a limited number of space; the thing is, you’re not always going to have the luxury of giving a blow-by-blow account of what your character is thinking, and chances are, there are more important parts to the story you should be writing instead. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am primarily geared towards character-driven stories moreso than plot-driven. All I’m saying is that we don’t always need to be in their minds all the time. Sometimes, it’s sufficient to just see through their eyes.

That said, I totally understand that there are novels out there whose primary job is to get us into a character’s head. Mrs Dalloway, anyone? But considering that I’m writing a children’s fantasy adventure story, there are other things that I might need to be developing.

(Late reminder, but from now on, when I say “story,” assume I’m talking about genre fiction at the very least, or more specifically, fantasy fiction.)

3. Write 10,000 word chapters

A natural result of the first two, padded stories always lend themselves to extremely long chapters. Each of my fanfiction chapters have at least 3 scenes in it, whereas an average chapter in a real book probably deals with one scene at a time (not all, but mostly).

I realized how much this held me back in writing my original story, because I wouldn’t feel comfortable ending a chapter within, say, 1000 words even though I’ve already written what needed to happen in that scene. And I’d go, “How can I make this longer?” And so I would resort to #1 and #2. That meant I was spending time not advancing the story in any meaningful way. Ironically, because I was so used to padding my chapters with #1 and #2, I didn’t think about writing more effective scenes in their places. I would feel “stuck” on a chapter, because that other scene that would advance the plot obviously belonged to the next chapter, and I would keep postponing it. Terrible habit.

4. Take Weeks To Write a Chapter

And this definitely follows from the first three. As a fanfiction writer, I set my goal for finishing each chapter within two weeks. For 10,000 words, this seemed reasonable, especially because I’m a commuter and I work full-time. But sometimes, even when nothing is happening in a chapter, I would wait out those two weeks and try to churn something.

It took me a while to convince myself that I absolutely don’t need to spend two weeks on a chapter. I could write whatever I can today, and if tomorrow I feel like there’s nothing left in a chapter to work on, I could move on.


Well, when I started this last week, I think I had more example of bad habits on my mind. Now that I am finishing up, I realize I can’t think of anymore. So why don’t I take some advice from myself, and it this post right here? =)

June 2017 Reads

I wasn’t able to read a lot this month. Most of the things I read were for school. For some reason, I was just really tired most of the time, and even during my morning commute to work, I just didn’t feel like reading. I think it mostly has to do with my reading slump after finishing Thick As Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner. I’m hoping to hop out of this slump this month.

In any case, here’s what I read for school. These books are for my technical entrepreneurship class.

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

My professor claims that The Lean Startup was a real game-changer several years ago. I can tell it was, because a lot of the principles mentioned in this book are things that are being actively practised in the industry, at least in the companies I’ve worked for. Things like A/B testing and MVPs that seem like very reasonable things were surprisingly not very ubiquitous some years ago.

The main thing I didn’t like about this book was how disorganized it was. I think there was an attempt to organize the book into sections, but it didn’t work, because a whole lot of the things mentioned in the first few chapters were incessantly repeated throughout the entire book. Not only were the concepts repeated across chapters, but the author has one of those high-school essayist syndrome where they try to repeat the thesis ten times in a paragraph. It just gets very redundant. Don’t get me wrong, the ideas are extremely helpful and important. I just did not like the way they were written.

Business Model Generation

The coolest thing about this book is its format. I ended up buying a physical copy, and I would recommend to anyone who wants to read this book to also buy a physical copy. Its strengths are really in how the message is conveyed. The design is spectacular, very sleek and almost magazine-like.

The most important parts of this book is the first quarter. After you finish reading the different sections of a business model and the different types of business models in existence, the content gets a little uninteresting after that. The chapters on storytelling and visualization were pretty much common-sense. And you can tell that they’re common-sense, because there were basically around three main ideas surrounding them that was repeated over and over again throughout the pages.

Well, here’s to hoping I’ll get more interesting things to read this month.

 

Writing Woes: Bored of My Own Characters

You know that saying, “How do you expect people to love you when you don’t love yourself?” Or I don’t know, something along those lines. I don’t remember it being quite so harsh, as I’m sure I’ve seen that saying on several get-well sites.

Well, that’s how I’m feeling about my own characters. I have talked about this before in this other post. Before that, I also mentioned being bored of my own story. I have taken a break from my story for several weeks, and I am now gearing up for next month’s Camp NaNoWriMo. I have dusted off my notes, and once again, refactored the plot. I spruced up the characters. I have read and reviewed three writing books.

Here’s the thing. I don’t think the problem is with the concept of my characters or the concept of my story. I think the problem is with me, the writer. Let me clarify what I mean about that. When I think of my story, I get very excited… but only if I am thinking about it from the point of view of a reader. The concept I have come up with is something I have wanted to read for a long, long time and the main reason I decided to write this story is because I am done waiting for the market to cater it to me. A lot of the plot points I constructed for my story are ones I would love to read about. Same with the characters; I created my characters to be, if not similar to the characters I love from other books, at least they possess qualities that I know I would like as a reader.

And this is the problem. I’m more interested in reading my story than I am in writing it.

The writing books don’t help at all in this regard. All of the writing books I’ve read try to instruct writers in how they can make their story enjoyable for their readers. However, none of them have any advice for how authors can enjoy writing their own stories. Is this just a problem I have?

I’m Glad This Came Up

Behold this gem.

Someone at work brought this up during lunch, and I read it after my break. I’m more on the ML/Big Data side of things, but as an aspiring writer, I can very, very much attest to the frustrations of NLPers. I’m glad someone finally called out the academic trend of “over-selling” especially when it pertains to deep learning, which is a buzzword these days that receives a lot of hype.

I think the problem definitely starts in academia and the sense of competitiveness there, but I also wish  that tech journalism was better. I remember reading this paper on using neural networks to separate the content and style of a piece of artwork; some articles that responded to this were so excited that they even deemed human artists obsolete. Or perhaps it wasn’t excitement so much as fear of the impending AI apocalypse. *sigh* I just wish for a more honest, more grounded coverage of what’s going on in the computer science community instead of the super-hyped up things we currently get both from the media and educational institutions.

And you know what? I also wish for more coverage on failed experiments in general. It’s great to hear about what’s working, but how do we know about things that people have tried before and didn’t quite work out? Isn’t that as informative as the successes?

Writing Wins: Re-outlining

Wow, I realize that I’ve only ever had “Writing Woes” posts, where I talk about everything that goes wrong in my writing. I didn’t actually have a positive writing post until now, which is kind of sad now that I think about it.

Anyway, “win” is probably an overzealous word for what happened, but small wins are still wins in my book. Nothing dramatic happened, except that I managed to untangle the big hairy plot that I talked about in my previous Writing Woes post. Not only did I manage to do it, but I did it in 7 days. That’s… impressive by my standards, considering that I’ve been straining against this plot since the beginning of the year. Is it super-polished? Hah, no, I don’t think I’ll get to that stage until I’ve gone through 3 drafts at least. But the good news now is that I can move forward with my 1st draft without wanting to pull all my hair out.

I took a 3-week break from my story, and when re-outlining, I considered every plot point up for debate. And that worked out so well for me. When I considered that some of the determining plot points didn’t need to happen, or did not need to happen the way that I envisioned it would, it was much easier to tease out the tangles in the plot. I still lost a considerable number of characters, but I think it’s for the better. (Remember Nasi, the tarsier? I don’t know why I didn’t nuke him out of the story from the get-go. The poor animal had no speaking lines, had very little motivation, and didn’t contribute to the plot. But as attached as I had become to this useless character, I wound up giving him the pink slip as well.)

I believe there’s another Camp NaNoWriMo coming up in July, and I am going to try and finish the 1st draft then. I know it’s an ambitious goal, seeing it’s taken me 7 months to write the first half. But I think it’s also pretty telling that this children’s book is only halfway done at 70,000 words. I think I need to tell the story with much less words. Considering this is the first draft, I’ll resort to ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’ if I need to move the plot along.

My hope is to be able to churn out a complete 2nd draft by the end of the year. It’s actually this goal that prompted me to re-outline my plot. My initial plan was to push through the first draft and figure out the changes to the plot as I go along, but it was causing me to lag behind my goals. I’ve read many writers advice that when you’re writing a draft, you shouldn’t go back and edit right away, but keep writing with your changes in mind. This wasn’t enough for me. I really had to revisit the entire story. It was disorienting for me to keep writing without addressing the issues from the parts I’d already written. It’s hard to build upon the story without knowing what events happened previously.

Learning is Intangible

For this post, I’m refocusing for a moment on my full-time job. I know that this blog is mostly filled with my hobbies and personal projects, so it might seem like those are the only things I do. However, most of my life actually revolves around my career in tech.

I started my internship as a data scientist at the beginning of the month. It’s my 2nd full-time job as a computer scientist, and in some ways, I cannot help but compare it to my 1st full-time job. I worked as a front-end software engineer for over two years in a smaller company. Both companies are great, filled with talented people I get along with. More importantly, in both companies I am doing work that I am passionate about even though they are different.

And that’s what I want to focus on in this post: the difference between my experience as a front-end software engineer from a small start-up(-ish) company, and my impression so far as a data science in a much, much larger company.

I knew that the work would be different. And yet, I think I naively assumed that the job would be similar enough that I could measure my productivity in the same way. In my old job, I knew I was being productive when I managed to finish my assigned tickets. Depending on the tasks, I could finish about five moderate bugs in a day; for new features, I could at least get some new code out to code-review within a day or two at most.

In my new job, the process is entirely different. We’re working in Kanban style, rather than sprints. My tasks are a little more vague. Instead of having a specific goal I could measure, like changing the header background from white to grey, or adding a pop-out to a link, I’m assigned tasks like visualizing the clusters of similar items. As you can see, this task is less measurable. For one thing, the end goal isn’t to just have a nice visualization, right? Underneath that statement, I know that my goal is also to analyze the visualization, to obtain insights from the clustering. And this means that I have to find out a clustering algorithm that can actually give me a good visualization; it means that I have to find the data that can work with such an algorithm; it means that I have to find a visualization that can actually give me insights. And in the end, how do I know if the insights are meaningful or not?

For the past four weeks, I have struggled a little with this vagueness. Yes, I know I could ask, but I get the impression that it’s also part of the job of a data scientist to figure out these things. Whenever I’m assigned a task, it’s no longer up to a product manager to break down that task for me. It’s up to me to figure out what’s involved in that process.

I think this is the biggest difference between my previous job and the current one. As a junior software developer, my job was to implement whatever the product managers told me to. This is in contrast with a research position, where my job is to discover what must be implemented.

I worry that I’m not being as productive as I can be, and my worries are compounded with the fact that I don’t actually know how to measure my productivity as a data scientist. Which leads me to this passage from The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.

When I worked as a programmer, that meant eight straight hours of programming without interruption. That was a good day. In contrast, if I was interrupted with questions, process, or — heaven forbid — meetings, I felt bad. What did I really accomplish that day? Code and product features were tangible to me; I could see them, understand them, and show them off. Learning, by contrast, is frustratingly intangible.

Wow. This book is required reading for my Technical Entrepreneurship course that runs alongside the internship. I don’t have much of an entrepreneurial spirit in me, but when I read this, I thought, “Aha! This is why this book is required reading!” I never realized what it was that bothered me as I started my career in data science, until I found this passage in the book. I could have never put it in a better way.

Learning, by contrast, is frustratingly intangible.

I realized much of what I do in my new job as a research intern is learning.  When you’re researching, what you’re doing is learning. You’re learning what works and what doesn’t. I was so used to measuring my productivity in terms of how much code I write or how many tasks I finished. Now I have to figure out a way to measure my productivity in terms of learning and the return value from what I learn.